Every once in a while I find a book so dense that it seems impenetrable. The kind of book that requires research to read. Like Joyce’s Ulysses (I took an entire course on Joyce in college) or Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury (Cliff Notes provided by my High School English teacher). I’ve always enjoyed information mining. But, the Geography of Rebels Trilogy is next level… I can’t imagine who the intended audience was or is.
It’s not a bad book. I find it fascinating, though I don’t entirely understand it. Llansol plays with language in ways I’ve never encountered, and her translator Audrey Young does an excellent job of conveying this. Pick a page at random – one of the benefits of a book that doesn’t recognize linear structure – and read. There’s always something interesting happening at a sentence level.
Anyone coming to Llansol with any kind of “normal” expectations at all will likely be disappointed. Plot, logical structure, continuity, a sense of linear time and/or space— you won’t find any of that here. At least not in any form that is readily apparent. Instead, Llansol immerses her readers in a shared hallucinatory vision, seemingly fueled by religious hysteria and open to multiple interpretations.
The key into Llansol is provided by Benjamin Moser in an extremely helpful afterword, which I recommend reading before delving into the Geography of Rebels. In it Moser explains that, while in exile with her husband in Belgium, Llansol “discovered an institution peculiar to the Low Countries: the beguinage, medieval hostels that offered refuge to spiritually inclined laypeople.” These hostels were built for women who did not wish or intend to take holy orders but wanted to live a life of religious contemplation and celibacy. They still exist today. And it was after visiting one such beguinage in Bruges that Llansol “suddenly understood that ‘several levels of reality were deepening their roots, coexisting without any intervention of time.’”
This small insight into the author’s history helps to explain the real-life, historical figures she chose to populate the pages of her books——a veritable who’s who of medieval Christian mystics throughout the ages. Saint John of the Cross was a 16th-century Spanish Carmelite priest and mystic, still revered in Spain for his poetry. One poem, in particular, stands out—his Spiritual Canticle, in which he coined the phrase “the dark night of the soul.” Ana de Peñalosa was his patron, with whom he corresponded. (Llansol lifts whole quotes directly from the letters John wrote Ana de Peñalosa). Thomas Müntzer, a German theologian alive at the turn of the 15th century was imprisoned and tortured, as was John, for his faith. In the pages of Llansol’s book all three talk and interact like old friends (despite Müntzer walking around with his severed head in his hands, having died seventeen years prior to John’s birth).
Publisher: Vintage Books/Random House, New York (2002)
ISBN: 0 375 72451 6
Is Sappho, who composed her poems c. 630-570 B.C., the earliest woman to have her work was translated into English? She was much admired in antiquity, the woman whom Plato called “the tenth muse”, but notwithstanding the immensity of her reputation very little of her work has survived intact. There are reasons for this and scholars who are more qualified to speak on the subject than I am. Enough to say that what do exist are fragments of the original poems preserved on bits of decaying papyrus. These surviving pieces are beautiful even in (and sometimes because of) their incomplete state…. and tantalize us with what they do and do not reveal.
Anne Carson seems to understand that part of the attraction of Sappho is the mystery which surrounds her. Carson’s 2002 translations, collected in the book titled If Not, Winter, are interesting in a variety of ways – not least being how she presents the verses. On the left hand page is the original Greek. On the right, the English translations. This is fairly typical formatting in poetry translations, but she has also made the radical decision to use brackets to signify the missing words and sections – to define the negative space within Sappho’s poems. Carson explains her thought process in an Introduction to the collection: “Brackets are an aesthetic gesture toward the papyrological event rather than an accurate record of it… I emphasize the distinction between brackets and no brackets because it will affect your reading experience, if you allow it. Brackets are exciting. Even though you are approaching Sappho in translation, there is no reason you should miss the drama of trying to read a papyrus torn in half or riddled with holes or smaller than a postage stamp – brackets imply a free space of imaginal adventure.”
What results is a surprisingly modern form of poetry.
]quick as possible
But you, O Dika, bind your hair with lovely crowns,
tying stems of anise together in your soft hands.
For the blessed Graces prefer to look on one who wears flowers
and turn away from those without a crown.
Reading the truncated succinctness of the first three incomplete lines, followed by the fullness of the final four, is a voluptuous pleasure that must exist separately from the original verse Sappho would have sung. Perhaps what surprises most is the loveliness of the left hand page, an area most monolingual readers tend to ignore, believing it the territory of scholars who might want to compare the original to the translation. In this case the Greek characters, to which Carson has also applied her brackets, have a visual beauty. They appear romantic and exotic, evoking the Mytilene island of Lesbos where Sappho lived and composed.
Anne Carson is an accomplished poet in her own right, in conjunction to being a skilled translator. She is also a woman (to state the obvious) – which is relevant because the feminine voice is the essence of all Sappho’s poetry. So if in some places she has taken liberties in how the lines are formatted on the page, creating spacing and indentations where none existed in the Greek, it is because her knowledge of modern poetry – of the works of poets such as e.e. cummings and Emily Dickinson – informs her translation. This does not necessarily put Carson at odds with the antiquity of the source text since no one is even sure that Sappho was, herself, literate. Her poetry was sang, accompanied by a variety of musical instruments and most of what has come down to us are transcriptions made by others after her death.
Each poem and fragment in the collection is numbered – using the same numbers/numerical system as the one used by Greek scholars. This means that Fragment 81, for example, is always the same (notwithstanding differences in translations) across texts. These fragments range from almost complete poems (Nos. 1, 2, 3, 5 & 31); to series of seemingly random words; to single lines which float at the top of a page – “and I on a soft pillow will lay down my limbs”. Fragment 38 consists of only three words – “you burn me”. While it might seem useless reading these words, stranded without context – it is that very lack of context which makes them seem powerful. True their power will inevitably be diminished as new words and lines are discovered and “you burn me” is again imbedded among the other, more relevant, lyrics. But reading Sappho is a rather like a high-stakes game of Mad Libs, something Carson seems to understand.
Over time this reader of Sappho has found herself becoming a collector of words and phrases as new information, new fragments, are uncovered. Often in the most obscure places – ancient rubbish heaps or scraps of papyrus that was used in the wrappings of Egyptian mummies. In 2005 the Times Literary Supplement published a more complete version of Fragment No. 58 than what was available to Carson in 2002. The discovery of a new papyrus magically allowed us to fill in the blanks, completing almost the entire poem. Two more poems were found in 2014 (“New Poems By Sappho” TLS, 5 February 2014). The first poem was not entirely unknown to scholars, its existence had been mentioned by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus in his writings. What has become known as “The Brothers Poem” is missing only a few words. The second find was yet another short fragment consisting of approximate five, more or less, complete lines.
Each of these new discoveries is a revelation that fills in more of the negative space surrounding Sappho’s work, and causes those seemingly innocuous brackets in If Not, Winter to take on a new significance. “…Brackets imply a free space of imaginal adventure” Anne Carson wrote in 2002. That implication has since become a promise.
All Dogs Are Blue is a beautifully nuanced portrayal of mental illness. Rodrigo de Souza Leão has given us a story set in a Brazilian mental institution which isn’t a caricature of lunacy. The author does not fall into the familiar stereotypes. He does not confine his narrator within a prison of horrors. Nor does Souza Leão romanticize the disease, assigning it the attributes of genius. The narrator has schizophrenia, but he is not defined by it. He possesses a consciousness and humanity outside of his mental illness.
The unnamed narrator is a patient at a Rio de Janeiro asylum. In the course of his free-flowing, stream-of-conscious narrative he tells us about his daily routine, gives his observations on his fellow patients, his parents and caregivers, tells how he came to be committed and shares his reoccurring delusions. Two of these, Baudelaire and Rimbaud, are his best friends – the angel and the devil on his shoulders. He masturbates a lot. A loose subplot hinges on another inmate, The Fearsome Madman, and provides some comic relief. All Dogs Are Blue is a book full of contradictions. When it is funny, it’s hilarious. When it is serious, it’s heartbreaking.
This is by no means a traditional narrative, filtered as it is through the narrator’s – sometimes lucid, sometimes delusional – perceptions. The routine of the asylum can be mind-numbingly boring, and yet the narrator is constantly striving to find beauty and meaning inside this narrow world. While Souza Leão is no slouch as a novelist, his true calling is as a poet. I recommend reading this book for the richness of the prose; the shifts between reality and delusion; the beautiful and surreal imagery; and the symbolism of a blue toy dog. Each and every word, up until the last period, counts.
All Dogs Are Blue is – at its heart – a long, shimmering prose poem beautifully translated by Zoë Perry & Stefan Tobler.
I’ve been to China. Saying it like that makes it sound like I’ve travelled a lot. It was a very pretty place, full of people, bicycles and lots of clouds. The clouds, the clouds. There I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was a foreigner and I was madly in love with those far-away clouds, oh those wonderful clouds! Shapes in the sky. When the day is like that, a sunny day, a day like today, I no longer want to get out of here. I’ll sleep in the calm green of 6 mg of Lexotan. Hold on tight to my blue dog and enter into a pact with happiness. Remember China, its bicycles, its blood-red flag and, finally, those incredible clouds in the Chinese sky. I think I’ll be happier once I’ve taken the bloody blood oath. I want to die of anything, anything but of a chip I swallowed.
This is also a semi-autobiographical novel. It’s Brazilian author, Rodrigo de Souza Leão, died in an institution. He, like his protagonist, was not a man defined by his illness. His artistic output during his too short life (1965-2008) was enormous. He was the author of at least four novels, more than ten books of poetry and was co-founder/editor of the Brazilian poetry magazine Zunái. He was a blogger and maintained friendships with several other important Brazilian poets and authors through email and social media. In addition he was a visual artist whose paintings were posthumously exhibited, in a solo exhibition, at Rio’s Museum of Modern Art. Most dream of, but few succeed in, leaving behind such a legacy.
The English edition of All Dogs Are Blue, published by And Other Stories includes an Introduction by Deborah Levy and the Publisher’s Preface to the Second Brazilian Edition by Jorge Viveiros de Castro (Rodrigo de Souza Leão’s Brazilian publisher) who was a friend of the author’s.
I purchased this little book of poetry sometime last year on a whim. It didn’t pop back up on my radar until after I read The True Deceiver, and discovered in the course of writing my review that both books were nominated for the 2011 Best Translated Book Award. I immediately pulled it out of the pile and devoured Flash Cards in just a few short hours. It’s a brilliant, beautiful collection of poems. I’ve returned to it several times since that first reading to re-visit my favorites.
Yu Jian is a Chinese poet. “The second bestselling contemporary Chinese poet, behind Bei Dao” we learn in his translator’s, Ron Padgett’s, thoughtful note (really more of an introduction) at the beginning of Flash Cards. The three pages of Padgett’s A Note on Translating Yu Jian provide a unique portrait of a poet living in today’s China. It’s followed by an equally interesting analysis of the poetry by Simon Patton, who discusses T.S. Eliot’s influence. And then we get to the meat of it: the seventy-five poems that make up this collection.
Throughout the book Yu Jian grapples with China’s vast cultural history in an attempt to contextualize its present. He repeatedly uses the traditional symbols and motifs – Autumn, leopards, flowering fruit trees, a porcelain bowl – and then contrasts them to a much less elegant modern world. And so peach blossoms become pink cosmetic boxes glimpsed from an escalator and a presumably priceless Shang Dynasty antique reveals itself to be a mass-produced bowl used to hold chicken soup. He shows us a China disconnected from its past. The poems are short and yet, in just a few lines, Yu Jian tells surprisingly complex stories.
Someone discovered Xi Shuang Ban Na
The locals don’t know what that means
They’ve never discovered beauty in their native land
The world has always been like this
The place has always been called Xi Shuang Ban Na
This collection is not political. But I still couldn’t help thinking of the Chinese artist Ai WeiWei and his 1995 piece: Dropping a Han dynasty urn. Both artists are smashing tradition – though, perhaps not so dramatically in Yu Jian’s case. Both challenge the public’s attachment to a China that no longer exists by co-opting its icons and placing them within what has become an almost alien environment. In Yu Jian’s case this includes the art of poetry. Nothing, it seems, is sacred.
The lake takes off its blue mitten
exposing a red palm
The blue mitten is a metaphor for the lake
The red palm is the lakebed
Next you should compare yourself
to something small and lovely on the shore
a gazelle or deer drinking water
but don’t ever compare yourself to a fish
because they’re doomed the lake drying up
Yu Jien does not sacrifice beauty for meaning in his writing. Nor do the translators. The surprisingly lovely imagery, the distinctive meter and rhythm of these poems seems to have been strictly held to – an English and a Chinese translator collaborating to protect the integrity of the work. For those who have to ability to confirm this: the original Chinese text is printed on the page facing the English translation for each of the seventy-five poems. The paperback is well designed with clean-cut pages and french flaps. In short: Zephyr Press has done a wonderful job. Not surprising, as the non-profit, independent publisher specializes in international poetry translations.
Flash Cards is a joint project with The Chinese University Press and the Jintian Literary Foundation.
Publisher: Zephyr Press & Chinese University Press; Brookline, Mass./Hong Kong (2011)
ISBN: 978 0 9815521 3 2
If you know me, then you probably know of my obsession with podcasts. The latest and greatest being the Three Percent Podcast, hosted by Chad Post from Open Letter Books and Tom Roberge from New Directions. I couldn’t give you a reason why I like listening to these guys – other than the great recommendations for translated lit and their knowledge of random (and frightening) facts: such as the Power Rangers have been around for at least 13 seasons (actually 19). Chad’s baseball enthusiasm cracks me up, Tom comes off as a bit of a misanthrope which I find even funnier. Together they’re just a great team. I encourage you to listen to them.
One excellent recommendation they made was the Japanese literary magazineMonkey Business. The title comes from an old Chuck Berry song. It’s an editorial collaboration between Motoyuki Shibata (editor of the Japanese edition) and Ted Goossen (who translates of 9 of the 14 stories collected in Volume 01). You can purchase a copy through A Public Space ‘s website.
I think for most readers the immediate draw will be a 2008 interview with Haruki Murakami, conducted by the Japanese novelist Hideo Furukawa. But the short stories, poetry and haikus – many involving monkeys – will hook the adventurous reader. These Japanese authors are incredibly visceral, both in their subject matter and descriptions. Squeamish beware! Some of the plots border on the bizarre. Monsters, deformities, mythology and horror are all par for the course.
What I enjoyed most was style in which the stories are told, which is entirely different from anything I’m used to. They made me think in new ways (if that makes sense?). I imagine repeat readings will uncover ideas and points I’d missed the first go around.
As I said, Volume 1 is still available. Volume 2 (I believe) will be out Spring, 2012. If you’re looking for an overview of or a quick introduction to Japanese literature… or just something out of the norm… Monkey Business is a good place to start.